The Weed Wave Hitting B-Schools


Anthony Dukes of USC. USC Marshall photo

Many of those who “have done this for a long time” have earned MBAs from elite B-schools. Brendan Kennedy, for example, graduated from Yale’s SOM. He is the CEO of Privateer Holdings, a cannabis company that has raised more than $140 million in venture capital backing. Fellow Yale SOM grad Ebele Ifedigbo is helping run Hood Incubator, a marijuana business incubator in Oakland, California. Harvard MBA Adrian Sedlin is running a luxury cannabis business called Canndescent from Santa Barbara, California. And Dan Devlin, another Harvard MBA, runs Db3, an edible production and distribution company in Washington state.

Devlin, who is 69, says Db3 is his sixth startup. The idea came during a Thanksgiving dinner when his younger brother, Michael, proposed the idea of launching a business focused on marijuana edibles. “We can make anything,” Devlin recalls his younger brother proposing. “We just have to make an extract.”

While Devlin says he was “on his way to the golf course,” the idea of being an industry pioneer intrigued him more than retirement.

“If you’re a business person, it’s very seldom that you have an opportunity to be a full-fledged pioneer in a brand-new industry,” Devlin says. “And this particular industry is so unique in the fact that it has perhaps a $40 billion market existing today — primarily black — although it’s moving from black to gray to legal.”

Even with its potential, diving into the industry doesn’t come without headaches — and many possible legal ramifications. “You’re talking to a felon right now,” Devlin says, reminding P&Q of the federal laws still in place. “I cannot get a mortgage today because my income comes from a cannabis company,” he continues. “Our company cannot get a debit card.”


Many MBAs at USC Marshall are more interested in the investment side of the business than launching their own dispensary or production and distribution businesses, Dukes says. “We don’t have students coming to us saying they are interested in opening a dispensary, it’s more, ‘I’m interested in venture capital, or entrepreneurship, or private equity.’ That’s where I see the soft spot for the MBA,” he says.

But even with venture capital or private equity, the legality of the federal banking structure makes the industry’s growth uncertain at best. Peter Conti-Brown, a professor at the Wharton School who holds a Ph.D. and law degree, is one of the leading researchers in the marijuana industry and banking. In a brief, The Policy Barriers to Marijuana Banking, Conti-Brown details many of the intricate issues with banking and the industry.

“With the national government moving in one direction and states moving in another, marijuana-related businesses and the banks that might serve them cannot cohere on a viable business plan,” Conti-Brown writes. “The result will continue to be legal, practical, economic, and social dysfunction. This federalist experiment divides the governmental house against itself. We either must embrace the experimental nature of our federalist form of government and allow the states their right to embark on this new business, or else forcibly eliminate the experiment with legalized marijuana altogether.”


For those entrepreneurial and risk-taking MBAs, however, there are major opportunities to get into the industry at the ground level.

“I don’t think there are a lot of barriers to entry for the students who are interested in it, not unlike many years ago when the internet was new and people weren’t even sure in that industry and then it turned out Silicon Valley was born,” USC’s Mark Brostoff says. “That’s the way I think some very enterprising MBAs can secure themselves some opportunities.”

In terms of job opportunities, Brostoff says the network, so far, remains informal. Students are inquiring about how to break into the industry and what cannabis-related jobs will look like on the resume, he explains. But so far, he says, they have not formalized the recruiting network like with other industries. That could be changing, he says.

“I can envision the day when we have cannabis industry representatives, whether they are VCs or owners and operators of multi-chain stores of dispensaries, I think they will come and start knocking on the door looking for the talents of business students,” Brostoff says. “It’s not just a finance thing. That’s just one area. You’re looking at very sophisticated marketing, management, supply chain, and operations.”

Devlin agrees that today’s business students have potential to innovate within the industry. “Students coming out today are fantastic. They are so much further advanced than my time,” he says.


Both Brostoff and Devlin warn that along with the volatile market and uncertainty surrounding competition and legality, conglomeration in the cannabis industry is already taking place — and will continue to do so.

“If you’re going to enter into the cannabis industry, there will definitely going to be winners and losers,” Devlin explains. “You have to be in it for the long haul and you have to have a real tolerance for change and be able to adjust.”

Brostoff echoes the sentiment. “There are going to be large conglomerates at some point and a few really big players,” he says. “And again, for that MBA that wants to get into the ground floor of that, this is the time for them to explore.”


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